May 2, 2013
If you want to lose a few hours, head over to the online fashion archive of designer Zandra Rhodes.
Born in 1940 in southeast England, the pink-haired, flamboyantly dressed Rhodes was first exposed to fashion by her mother, a fitter for a Paris fashion house. She immersed herself in sartorial studies, and more specifically textile design, when she enrolled in the Medway College of Art and then the Royal College of Art before opening her own London boutique with Sylvia Ayton in 1967, the Fulham Road Clothes Shop. She got her break in 1969 when Diana Vreeland featured a few of her pieces in Vogue. From there, Rhodes began selling clothes at Henri Bendel, among other well-known boutiques, and she’s been quite prolific ever since.
Over 500 pieces from the designer’s collection and thousands of sketches spanning her almost 50-year career were made available to the public this past March in a project developed by the University for the Creative Arts in England (where she was made the school’s first chancellor in 2010 and where her mother had been a teacher when it was called Medway). While the Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection emphasizes Rhodes’ most prolific period, from the 1970s and into the ’80s, it also ventures back to when she began designing in the mid- to late ’60s and covers her career through the present.
She’s not only attracted attention and made a name for herself as a result of her bright shock of hair, but also because she has a keen eye for textiles, silhouette and color, and designs that are chock-full of historical references like hobble skirts of the 1910s, drop-waisted looks from the 1920s and tailored construction of the 1940s. Celebrities, dignitaries and punk luminaries including Freddy Mercury of Queen, Diana, Princess of Wales, Jacqueline Onassis and Debbie Harry all wore or have worn her designs. And she was bestowed the honor of Commander of the British Empire by the Queen in 1997!
While pieces of her collections can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, this new digital collection is a one-stop archive of her work. It’s also meant to serve as a tool for fashion students. Sort through her designs by season (The Cactus Cowboy Collection! The Magic Carpet Collection! The Shell Collection!), objects, techniques, textile designs and fabrics. A series of videos, including tips on screen printing, patternmaking and hem stitching contribute to the richness of this educational resource. And “Ask Zandra” provides insightful facts and historical commentary about her collections.
Click on random collections for the most surprising, and satisfying, way to peruse the online archive. And with other archives from museums and private collections going digital, including the soon-to-be-launched Europeana Fashion, it’s only a matter of time before the fashion studies tool kit is almost entirely virtual.
To see a few Zandra Rhodes originals, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened show, Punk: Chaos to Couture, open May 9 – August 14, 2013 in New York City.
March 18, 2013
Last month, Chinese school uniforms made the news. Studies had shown that possibly as many as 25,000 children in Shanghai, China, were wearing mandated uniforms that were essentially poisoning them. The fabric contained toxic aromatic amines, thought to be carcinogens and found in plastics, dyes and pesticides. Ingesting, inhaling or absorbing the chemicals is considered hazardous and some countries have banned them. Students were told to stop wearing the outfits made by Shanghai Ouxia Clothing Company until a complete investigation had taken place.
Horrifying, but not particularly surprising, considering how much China appears in the headlines for tainted products, the incident recalled a moment this past November when big, fast fashion chains were in the news for selling toxic clothes. Greenpeace published a report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, in which it uncovered how retailers including Zara, H & M and Nike had been incorporating harmful dyes into fabrics. More specifically:
A total of 141 items of clothing were purchased in April 2012 in 29 countries and regions worldwide from authorised retailers. The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments. NPEs [nonylphenol ethoxylates] were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested), showing little difference from the results of the previous investigation into the presence of these substances in sports clothing that was conducted in 2011. In addition, the presence of many other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals was discovered across a number of the products tested.
According to the Huffington Post, just over a week after Greenpeace released the report, the international clothing chain Zara, committed to changing its ways. It will ”eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals” by 2020, the company said.
So how far have we really come from the time when ancient Egyptians used copper and lead in their eye makeup? In the 15th to 17th centuries, Romans used variations of lead and mercury to lighten their skin. When “Irish beauty Marie Gunning (a k a the Countess of Coventry) died in 1760, the press called her a ‘victim of cosmetics.’ ”
Style has trumped safety and comfort for centuries. Even though we now know these chemicals and dyes are bad for us, they keep creeping into our clothes and makeup. Sometimes we make decisions about what to wear based on what we think looks good, and in doing so, we do more damage to ourselves than we knew was possible.
For starters, take women’s shoes. High heels may make our legs look slim and elegant, but they are also known to cause ankle and heel pain, plantar fasciitis, painful swelling of the bottom of the foot, bunions and corns. Thick wooden wedges, five-inch stilettos and the heel-less Lady Gaga variety change our posture and how we arch our posteriors.
This performance offers a stark commentary on the subject, with the model assuming egretlike movements in order to walk in a very nontraditional pair of heels.
Historically speaking, one of the best-known examples of harmful body modification is foot binding. The Chinese practice kept a woman’s feet “dainty” and “lady-like” by tightly wrapping them when she was a child to prevent natural growth. The painful process was done to secure her role in the upper echelons of society.
By grossly deforming and disabling their feet and wearing tiny, delicate shoes, women would be more attractive to their mate, they were told, and would not be expected to work. Thankfully the practice was banned in 1912 (although people continued to bind in secret). On occasion, it’s still possible to encounter a woman from an older generation in China hobbling around on bound feet.
Speaking of hobbling, how about the hobble skirt? This form of restrictive, perilous garment was popularized in the 1910s and is generally attributed to French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Skirts were long and full, and they narrowed at the hem, or even at the calf, to provide a ballooning effect.
But there’s another version of the skirt’s origin that suggests a practical side to the style. The story goes that when Mrs. Hart Berg went on a flight with the Wright brothers, the first woman to do so, she tied a rope around the bottom of her long skirt to keep it from billowing in the air. Soon the Wright brothers’ sister, Katherine Wright, did the same. The trend took off and women attempted to wear these hazardous skirts to perform everyday tasks without falling flat on their faces, as depicted in numerous news stories from the time. The style lost its luster with the advent of the car, which certainly makes sense. Imagine trying to climb into a Ford Model T with the equivalent of an unforgiving elastic band wrapped around your calves.
Finally, no overview of clothing hazards would be complete without acknowledging the corset. For hundreds of years, the corset has been worn to mask or accentuate the natural curves of a woman’s, or man’s, body. With whalebone or metal boning and tight-lacing, the body-binders prompted medical professionals, especially in the 1800s, to try to bring an end to their use, explaining that they hindered muscle development, mobility and, well, the ability to breathe. The doctors were on to something, but, as was the case with bound feet, many women weren’t ready to give up the body-shaper because, they, or society, preferred the corseted shape over their natural one.
What are examples of dangerous or precarious clothes, shoes or underwear you’ve worn, purposefully – or unbeknownst to you? (Take the case of Isadora Duncan, who was strangled by her scarf.) Or, what do you try to stay away from?
Thanks, Laura Jane Kenny!
December 28, 2012
What do Michael Jackson, King Tut and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? A penchant for sequins.
At some point between 1480 and 1482, Leonardo whipped together a sketch for a machine that, using levers and pulleys, would punch small disks out of a metal sheet.
Since the device was never actually made, we don’t know if the Renaissance jack-of-all-trades dreamt it up to glamourize the gamurra, a typical women’s dress of the time, or if it had some greater utilitarian purpose.
Going back centuries before Leonard, there’s Tutankhamun (1341 B.C.-1323 B.C.). When King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, gold sequinlike disks were found sewn onto the Egyptian royal’s garments. It’s assumed they’d ensure he’d be financially and sartorially prepared for the afterlife.
Sewing precious metals and coins onto clothing wasn’t just prepping for the hereafter. In fact, the origins of the word “sequin” have always referenced wealth. The Arabic word sikka means “coin” or “minting die.” During the 13th century, gold coins produced in Venice were known as zecchino. For centuries, variations of sikka and zecchino were used in Europe and the Middle East. Incidentally, in England, they’re not sequins—they’re spangles.
Sewing gold and other precious metals onto clothing was multifunctional, serving as a status symbol, a theft deterrent or a spiritual guide. Especially for those with more nomadic lifestyles, coins were kept close to the body and attached to clothes (see example above). In addition to safekeeping valuables, sequined clothing doubled as ostentatious displays of wealth in places like Egypt, India and Peru and, with their glaring sheen, they were meant to ward off evil spirits.
An example of how we wear sequins today comes from the Plimoth Plantation women’s waistcoat. The museum website explains, “These fashionable items of dress were popular in the first quarter of the 17th century for women of court, the nobility and those who had achieved a certain level of wealth.” The jacket, a reproduction of a garment at the Victoria and Albert Museum, includes an astonishing 10,000 sequins hand-stitched by volunteers using a historic technique.
The reflective bits of metal—sewn onto the Plimoth jacket and dresses, bonnets and other jackets during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—made the garments and accessories look fancy. And that trend grew exponentially after the discovery of sequins in King Tut’s tomb. The round disks became all the rage on garments in the 1920s and were typically made of metal. (Imagine a flapper dancing in a dress weighed down by thousands of metal sequins.)
In the 1930s, a process to electroplate gelatin (hello, Jell-O…) produced a lighter-weight version of the shiny metal disks. But one major obstacle (besides the color being lead-based) was that the gelatin sequins were finicky; they would melt if they got wet or too warm. So getting caught in a thunderstorm could leave you in a sequinless sheath. Or, as the blog Fashion Preserved mentioned, “missing sequins can tell tales.” For instance, the warmth of a dance partner’s clammy hand on the back of a dress could melt the sequins. While not viable for their longevity on clothing, today they’ve become known for their edibility; it’s easy to find recipes to make palatable (although definitely not vegan) sequins from gelatin to decorate cakes and assorted baked goods.
The guy behind our contemporary understanding of sequins is Herbert Lieberman. After realizing that gelatin sequins wouldn’t do the trick, he worked with Eastman Kodak, a company that had begun using acetate in its film stock in the 1930s (acetate film is a specific type of plastic material called cellulose acetate) to develop acetate sequins. They looked beautiful but were still fragile. As Lieberman told Fanzine magazine:
“The light would penetrate through the color, hit the silver, and reflect back,” he says. “Like you painted a mirror with nail polish.” Brilliant, but brittle. “Acetate will crack like glass. The harder the plastic, the nicer the sequin’s going to be.”
In 1952, DuPont invented Mylar and that changed the sequin game yet again. The largest sequin producer, the Lieberman-owned company Algy Trimmings Co., now based in Hallandale Beach, Florida, adopted the transparent polyester film. Mylar surrounded the plastic colored sequin and protected it from the washing machine. Voila! Or, sort of.
Eventually the Mylar-acetate combination was discarded for vinyl plastic. More durable and cost effective, yes. (Although we now know that eventually the vinyl plastic curls and loses its shape.) Just as sparkly? Not quite, but good enough.
Which brings us to Michael Jackson one night in 1983 when he performed “Billie Jean” and premiered the moonwalk. He wore a black sequin jacket along with his iconic rhinestone glove (see first image in post), a look that made a lasting impression on the 47 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special. But that wasn’t the last time he’d be covered in shiny platelets. How about when he met the president of the United States in 1984 wearing a military-style, sequin jacket? Or on the HIStory world tour when he wore a white sequin number?
Melting, edible disks be damned, sequins are here to stay (and who knows what they’ll be made from 50 years from now). Yes, we expect to see them on a New Year’s Eve dress, but we’ve also grown accustomed to seeing them emblazoned on a basic white T-shirt or pair of flats. With accessibility comes diluted trends and with that comes, well, shapeless Uggs boots covered in what was once a symbol of attention-grabbing glamour.
December 6, 2012
The Bass Weejun loafer is not named after a Native American tribe.
Suitcases sometimes are time capsules.
And a postal worker can design high-end scarves.
What follows is Threaded’s second blog roundup of sartorial curiosities from around the web, turning on their head assumptions about what we wear and why we hold onto things.
The classic loafer, and various bedazzled iterations of it, have come roaring back into public consciousness since residing on the feet of dressed-down corporates for the past couple decades. How the shoes originated with Norwegian fishermen, when preppy college students’ flocked to them and why they’re called Weejuns is explained by Nancy Macdonnell in her New York Times cultural history of the slip-on, “Loafing Around”:
Despite the Ivy League associations and moccasin construction, the loafer is neither American in origin nor named for a little known Native American tribe. Instead, Weejun is a corruption of “Norwegian.” What does that Scandinavian country have to do with the preppiest of American shoe styles? As it turns out, quite a bit: The loafer as we know it came about thanks to a combination of Lost Generation wanderlust and a growing and more general desire for comfort. Though Paris was the most famous destination for F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lesser-known cohorts, some of his peers journeyed further afield. Those who went to Norway noticed that Norwegian fisherman made themselves comfortable shoes that consisted of leather sides joined by a strip of leather across the instep like moccasins—still the way true loafers are made today.
Last year, photographer Jon Crispin’s Kickstarter campaign to document the neglected but intact suitcases of patients from the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, New York, caught my eye. Dating from the 1910s to 1960s, these suitcases were left at the asylum after it closed in 1995. Now, as time capsules, the valises, and the objects within them, tell the eerie and heartbreaking story of each patient’s life, many of whom never left the hospital after they were admitted.
Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly interviewed Crispin last month about his project and the contents of the suitcases he’s been photographing in “Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients.” The everyday objects Crispin photographed, which patients felt were essential upon entering Willard—green Lucite hairbrushes, a bright yellow alarm clock, a tube of shoe cream, a gold leather belt, a sewing kit, black-and-white photos, silverware—are fascinating bits of cultural ephemera on their own. In each self-contained parcel, the contents come to represent the patient. In the interview, Crispin recalls one particular story that’s stayed with him:
One of the last cases I shot was from a guy named Frank who was in the military. His story was particularly sad. He was a black man, and I later found out he was gay. He was eating in a diner and felt that the waiter or waitress disrespected him, and he just went nuts. He completely melted down, smashed some plates, and got arrested. His objects were particularly touching because he had a lot of photo booth pictures of himself and his friends. Frank looks very dapper, and there are all these beautiful women from the ’30s and ’40s in his little photo booth pictures. That really affected me.
Lastly, did you read the story that’s been circulating on the Internet about the Texas postal worker who moonlights as the only American artist to design Hermès scarves? Kermit Oliver, who’s in his 60s, has contributed 16 paintings to Hermès since the 1980s when Lawrence Marcus, the executive vice president of Neiman Marcus, recommended him. His scarf designs, painted when he’s not working the night shift at the Waco post office, take six months to one year to create and are highly sought after. His enigmatic lifestyle and reclusive art career was documented in “Portrait of the Artist as a Postman” in the October issue of Texas Monthly:
Kermit’s wife met me at the door. She wore dish-washing gloves and an apron decorated with red chile peppers, and her hair was up in a turquoise bandanna. “You know,” she said, “we’re not visiting people.” But she welcomed me in, offered me some orange juice, and led me down the creaky plank floors of a dark, cramped hallway. The walls were covered with art: images of exotic animals, elegant ranch-life pastorals in vibrant colors, biblical allegories. We passed a framed scarf, Kermit’s first for Hermès. Displayed behind dusty glass, it was a portrait of a Pawnee Indian chief on a bright-orange background, surrounded by childlike drawings of galloping horses with flag-toting riders.
Anything that you’ve read recently that you would recommend to Threaded readers?
November 6, 2012
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has recently digitized 60 percent of its collection and made it available to the public. If my math is correct, that means that 123,802 objects spanning 24 centuries can now be viewed online. Prints, drawings, graphic design, decorative arts, textiles, wall coverings and garments that previously had been on view only during exhibitions or in print catalogues can now be found on the Cooper-Hewitt website along with details about materials and construction, when the object was acquired and its provenance.
Take note that the database is in its infancy. That means the search functionality is still very limited and placeholders for a slew of images are commonplace. While you may encounter hiccups here and there, the Cooper-Hewitt Lab is fully transparent throughout this massive undertaking, letting us know that the glitches are just part of getting everything working smoothly. I’m willing to be patient, especially after I came upon some incredible objects—skewing more toward dress and textiles, obviously—while digging into the online collection.
And while you’re perusing the Cooper Hewitt’s collection, I highly recommend its Object of the Day series in which the museum spotlights the history and provenance of an object from its collection. One of the best so far—on October 24, the museum chronicled the Swatch watch and how it popularized the analog watch amidst a surge of digital Casios and Timexs.